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October 23, 2002:

Professor, demystify yourself
Working closely with brilliance and getting the hang of it

By John Lurz '03   johnlurz@Princeton.EDU

Dry mouth, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat accompanied me as I walked into my thesis adviser's office last week. It was our first meeting. I had a few rough ideas about a topic bouncing around in my head, but the sight of Princeton University Professor of English D. Vance Smith immediately ejected them from my mind like a pilot in a flight emergency. And it wasn't because Professor Smith is an intimidating figure. Far from it. He is a tall, reserved man who wears little round glasses. His goatee, neatly trimmed, is delicately scattered with gray. His gentle accent, though slight, reminds me he grew up in South Africa. No, it wasn't his actual appearance that emptied my mind, it was the need I felt to be as intelligent and as much of an expert as I envisioned Professor Smith to be.

That afternoon, I imagined him as a draconian task master ready to impatiently fling me out of his office for lacking a definite and completely formulated — not to mention brilliant — thesis topic. I imagined that an eminent and busy professor would not take any more time than completely necessary to work with a babbling, incoherent undergraduate.

Which was why his first question — "How was your summer?" — immediately startled me into a rambling chain of prattle about summer days spent hiking in New Hampshire. Did Professor Smith really care about my summer or was he just being polite, I wondered. When I finally remembered all the manners my parents taught me and asked him about his summer, he responded with tales of teaching and traveling with his family.

All of a sudden, words like "my wife" and "vacation" were coming out of his mouth. Is Professor Smith a real person who has actual human relationships, I asked myself? Does he actually lead a life outside of being an articulate and accomplished Medievalist lecturing on Chaucer? Is he also a husband, friend and colleague who interacts with people the way my friends and I do? As we talked, I began to realize the pigeonhole I'd put Professor Smith into was quite a narrow and limited view of him.

We continued chatting, talking about the classes I was taking and the ones he was teaching, about my plans for next year, and about a friend of mine who is a former advisee of his. I suddenly felt the need to stop "wasting" his time and get to the point of the meeting. I thought that he must have more important things to do: maybe work on his own writing or prepare a lecture for the next day.

I began, almost in spite of myself, to repeat the rehearsed lines about the relationship between memory and writing that I hoped I could develop into a viable thesis topic for my English degree. I'd written my junior paper on a theory of the novel in which memory played a crucial role and wanted to expand a bit on that. The way writing aids or harms the faculty of memory had interested me since I began aspiring to write my own fiction.

When Professor Smith began asking me questions about my ideas, I felt threatened — did he not think they were smart ideas? Had I ruined my chance for impressing him? How could I salvage something of this meeting? I began to sweat more, and my heartbeat surged as I tried to think about his questions and respond with intelligent answers. Was I saying the right thing, I wondered? What did he think? Was he going to send me out of his office with a look of disdain and contempt?

And as I responded to his questions and he responded to my answers with comments or more questions, I grew used to the dialectic, falling easily into the Socratic method. Teasing relevant ideas from my garbled words, Professor Smith formulated and repeated back to me in a more coherent and clear style what I had blathered to him. After a few minutes, we had a viable beginning point for a topic, were assembling a reading list, and we were both excited about the prospect of the work ahead. The idea had been mine from the start, but I just needed the help of Professor Smith to focus it into something about which I could write 80+ pages. He told me to email him sometime in the coming week and we could set up another appointment.

He told me, though, that I shouldn't hesitate to hound him for appointments and attention, admitting that he could be a bit absent-minded. At that moment I realized that professors are people too.

Professor Smith — as well as every other professor on our campus — have real feelings, real relationships, and don't just exist as talking heads in front of a group of cowering undergrads. They aren't perfect; they have doubts; they aren't always sure of things. And sometimes they forget about their advisees.

It was undoubtedly an immature viewpoint that I held of my adviser that probably hints at my own insecurities and self-confidence issues more than I'd like to acknowledge. Yet, from what I've heard from talking with my friends, I'm not the only one who thinks this way.

It's not our job, though, to be perfect, brilliant academics; we're supposed to flounder around with ideas, and professors are supposed to help us. Professors enjoy taking time to work with students. If you've ever taught anything, you know the satisfaction that comes from that look of comprehension or from watching someone accomplish a goal you've helped them to achieve.

It's important to remember that someone helped these professors to get where they are and that many times they are learning as much from you as you are from them. One day — be it tomorrow or further in the future, whether it be in academia, business, or any other field — you'll be helping and teaching someone too.

You can reach John at johnlurz@Princeton.EDU